Guest Article


When Parents & Schools Disagree

by Ruth Heitin, Ph.D., Educational Consultant

I often tell my clients that if my own parents were alive, they would never understand what I do for a living.

I am an independent educational consultant, and as a private professional I work for parents in seeking appropriate educational services for their children. Far more often than I prefer, I disagree with the schools - something my parents and their generation saw as heresy.

For the past ten years, I have worked with hundreds of families of students with special needs. Every time I think I have seen the most egregious case of educational unenlightenment, another case comes along that is even more disturbing.

As a former teacher, I fully understand the challenges that teachers face. In my opinion, teaching is one of the toughest and most important jobs of all. I have also sat on the other side of the school conference table as a parent. Now, as an educational consultant, I am able to see both viewpoints. And, what I have learned over the past ten years is that while both parents and schools want what is best for children, their constraints and their perspectives will always differ.

What is important to know is that when parents and schools disagree, the ways that they resolve their disagreements depend upon the issues. Federal laws and regulations provide a framework for addressing the needs of special education students. When a child is not suspected of or diagnosed with a disability, the local school district has the right to govern its own programs. Dealing with general education requires politics, dealing with special education requires knowledge of the laws.

The following are some of the ways in which parents and schools disagree when a child is suspected of a disability with suggestions as to how to address these.

Does the student have an educationally-related disability?

Does the child's disability have an impact on his/her educational performance?

Does the child require special education services?

Are the special education services effective?

Does the student have an educationally-related disability?

In my experience, it is a parent's natural inclination to believe that all is right with his/her child. For parents to get to the point of believing that their child could have some kind of problem, they have to have done some serious reflection and data gathering on their own. Once a parent comes to the point of concern that a disability exists, it is incumbent upon the school professionals to take those parents' concerns very seriously.

However, it is also the natural inclination for schools to seek some outside explanation for a child's problems. Often they indulge in believing that the nature of the problem is a simple matter within the parents' control.

The only way to determine if a disability exists with a child is through comprehensive evaluation. The first step in this process is for the parents and school professional to meet to discuss the child in a meeting of professionals called a Child Study Committee or the like, depending upon the school district.

Schools often offer first to try a variety of interventions before doing evaluation, which is tantamount to a trial-and-error method of addressing a child's problems. Why would we try to address a problem without understanding it first? The role of this committee is to ask only if, based on the information available through their normal procedures, there is justification for further evaluation of the child. The school cannot ask parents to gather more information for them first nor can the school make a determination of eligibility for special education at that time; that is the role of another committee.

If the school does agree to do the evaluation, it is important for parents to understand the limitations of any school system in their evaluation.

One of the reasons that I left the school system was to have the opportunity to assess children in the way that I knew was necessary. School employees have little control over the time and the materials at their disposal in order to do evaluations. No matter how good a school professional is at evaluation, it is unlikely that he/she can perform the job as well as someone who is equally qualified in private practice. Private assessments are expensive because of the time that they require, but parents should know that the investment is, in my opinion, generally a wise one.

It is also important for parents to know that whoever does the evaluation is the one who will take the lead in determining the child's needs. The school personnel who do this are too often the same ones who will have to serve the child in their already-too-busy schedules. Having a private evaluator assess the child allows independent determination of the child's issues and needs without any bureaucratic constraints.

Of course, if the school system does the evaluation, and the parents question the results or the methods, they can seek an Independent Educational Evaluation at the school's expense. The down side of this is that it makes an already-protracted evaluation period even longer, requiring months before a child's needs can be appropriately understood and addressed.

Once evaluation is completed the determination can be made as to whether or not a child has a disability. Federal law does not specify the criteria for determining disabilities, that is left to the local school district. And, in my experience, the many local school districts in our area all have different criteria for determining eligibility for special education.

I have spent the past ten years helping parents in the eligibility process, and I can relate hundreds of horror stories about the process. For example, schools have found children not to be learning disabled based on the fact that they demonstrate no processing deficits, but the school has not effectively assessed the processing skills. This is tantamount to saying that a child does not have strep throat, despite all the symptoms, when one has not done a culture. Naturally, I believe that having an educational consultant assist you through the eligibility process for special education is a wise decision.

When the determination is made as to whether a disability exists, it is appropriate to look at this through all appropriate definitions. For school children, two laws address special needs - The Individuals with Disability Education Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

While both federal acts allow provision of special education services, practicality has dictated otherwise. IDEA has federal money attached to it, giving schools some reimbursement for serving special needs children, while Section 504 does not. Any child who is eligible for services under IDEA automatically is eligible under Section 504, but not the reverse. Primarily in practice today, the difference is that those who require special education services are eligible under IDEA while those who require only classroom accommodations rather are eligible under Section 504.

A key point in eligibility is whether the disability has an impact on educational performance and how. For example, some students with asthma are able to control it well while others require special accommodations when it comes to exercise and stress. Only in the latter case would it be necessary to identify the child as disabled educationally.

An important note here is that identifying disabilities in young children presents special challenges that the schools are often unable to manage.

Traditional achievement testing is insensitive with young children for a very good reason. Since achievement is the product of what a child has been taught and how much he/she has learned from that, and since formal instruction is limited in young children, it is very difficult to identify underachievement. In testing young children, information processing testing in areas such as phonemic awareness and rapid naming, for examples, must be relied upon to identify learning disabilities. Schools frequently fail to test these areas and instead rely upon the ineffective traditional test measures in measuring learning issues.

When schools come to the conclusion that a child does not have a disability, they often justify their conclusion by espousing that they do not want to label the child. This presumes that labeling a child is a stigma or a negative factor in some way.

Schools never admit that they are being advised to limit the numbers of students being eligible, but I believe they are. What they fail to see too often is that if one is going to err, it is better to give services than not and miss valuable educational opportunities that cannot be regained.

Does the child's disability have an impact on his/her educational performance?

This is often a contentious area of disagreement between parents and schools. There is no federal definition of educational impact. Nationally, court cases continue to address the question of educational impact of a disability.

In my experience, schools will readily admit educational impact if a student's grades are failing or if the child's disability presents a challenge to them. However, in cases where a child's disability affects them in less conspicuous ways, as is often the case with homework difficulties, schools too often deny any educational impact. However, as long as schools demand homework, they cannot ignore the parents' reports about how the disability affects homework time.

Similarly, when the educational impact is emotionally-related, or even medically-related, schools tend to deny what they cannot see. Parents need to document the impact of the disability as well as they can to offer undeniable evidence.

Keep charts of the time spent on homework or the number of headaches a child experiences. Document the help that the child requires in doing homework. It is harder to ignore data than narrative.

Does the child require special education services?

This question presents a difficult dilemma for the school system. The recent trend to educate all children in the general education classroom has too frequently resulted, in my opinion, in a watered-down system of offering specialized support for children.

Teachers and administrators too often seem to feel that if they admit that a child needs specialized instruction they are admitting their own failure. While it is certainly advantageous for some children to remain in the general education classroom for support, for others it denies them the opportunity for small group and specialized instruction that they need.

Historically, we have always known that children with special needs require specialized instruction, and the earlier the better. Recent research in learning disabilities, however, has articulated this even further.

Children with reading disabilities respond best to systematic, intensive, and specialized instruction. The window of opportunity for best results is to begin such programming before the child reaches his/her ninth birthday. After that, the prognosis for ameliorating the reading disability becomes less optimistic.

Are the special education services effective?

In 1997, when IDEA was reauthorized, an important change was implemented in which schools were required to evaluate special education students' progress as often as they did the progress of general education students. IDEA has long required that progress be evaluated in observable and measurable ways.

I cannot begin to count the number of times that a student's progress is merely observed rather than measured in any way. Independent assessment, school standardized testing, state assessment measures and observational charts are all means of evaluating and measuring progress.

My advice to parents who think that their children are not making sufficient progress Don't stop in your efforts to improve your child's progress.

Failure to make appropriate progress has devastating and cumulative ramifications.

This year's teacher will not be around to see the implications over time, but parents certainly will be.


Dr. Ruth Heitin is an independent educational consultant in Northern Virginia. Through Educational Consulting Services, Dr. Heitin offers assessment, advocacy and consultation with parents. She works with teachers, guidance counselors, pediatricians, and other professionals to develop a quality educational programs for children.

Dr. Ruth Heitin
100 West Howell Ave
Alexandria, VA  22301
703-519-7181